Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shaw Festival

Wasmuth portfolio, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

With approximately half of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs never executed, it's often interesting to contemplate his unbuilt compositions in concert with built work of the same period. In the case of the Darwin D. Martin House, one such example that continually intrigues me is the C. Thaxter Shaw House that Wright designed for the Westmount district of Montreal in 1906. The more one looks at the Martin and Shaw designs, the more parallels emerge. I would go so far as to say that the Shaw House was to be the Martin House's Canadian cousin.

Though destined to remain in the realm of "paper architecture," the Shaw House is tantalizingly documented in the Wasmuth portfolio through a perspective and plan. These announce some of the major similarities between Shaw and Martin: their pier construction, extending, hipped roofs, bands of art glass windows, and "outrigger" garden walls. One of the main differences is that the Shaw plan is more rigorously symmetrical than the Martin plan. Robert McCarter likens the Martin and Shaw plans to that of the Imperial Hotel, one of Wright's most formal and symmetrical plans (Frank Lloyd Wright, p. 146). This strict symmetry extends beyond the "unit room" of the Shaw House, but does not in the western half of the Martin House, which hints at the Usonian "L" plans to come.

Although it demonstrates all of the "stock" Prairie characteristics, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Shaw House is how it adapts the Prairie house to a hilly site. Such adaptations were relatively rare (e.g. the Hardy House, Racine, WI, 1906, built on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan); the Prairie House, by definition, is most comfortable on a flat, expansive site. With Shaw, the familiar, interlocking Prairie pavilions cascade down a terraced slope. Twin verandas extend at the lower level, like giant hands anchoring the house and gripping the hillside. But with all its symmetrical formality, the perspective drawing of the Shaw House recalls an imposing Roman structure such as the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, an austere, ceremonious presence in the design which may well have dissuaded Shaw from committing to build the house.

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives

This compare-and-contrast exercise extends also to the interiors and furnishings of the Martin and Shaw houses. An exquisite presentation drawing of the proposed Shaw living room shows many affinities with the Martin living room and its Wright-designed furnishings: a wisteria-patterned tile mosaic on the fireplace, a sofa with book storage built into the arms, a baby grand piano design, also with built-in book storage (though the Wright-designed piano was not built for the Martins either), and globe-in-square light sconces clustered around the piers. If executed, the tout ensemble of the Shaw living room would have been at least as aesthetically rich as the Martins.'

C. Thaxter Shaw shied away from the new house Wright designed for him, giving the architect the consolation prize of remodeling his existing townhouse. But even here, certain echoes of the Martin commission are evident. A drawing for the remodeled Shaw dining room shows a custom dining table incorporating planting stanchions - extensions of the legs near the corners, and an alcove designated for a cast of the Nike of Samothrace (one of Wright's favorite classical casts, often prescribed for Prairie period buildings). Sound familiar?

Clearly, Wright and his studio had no qualms about "recycling" certain interior and furniture design elements from one commission to the next - all in the spirit of testing and consolidating the Prairie vocabulary of design. Part of what makes the Martin House commission so unique is that its Canadian counterpart was never realized.

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